text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Bulgaria's choice of coin design tells of unsolved historical traumas

bulgarian euro coins.jpg

In spite of the protestations of the ruling "fixture" between PP-DB (Changes Continued of Kiril Petkov and Asen Vasilev and Democratic Bulgaria of Gen Atanas Atanasov and Hristo Ivanov) and Boyko Borisov's GERB about the "top national priority" of joining the euro zone, Bulgaria is still failing to handle the nuts and bolts. Its prospects to adopt the euro, notwithstanding its attempts of almost 15 years, are in the future. However, the Bulgarian National Bank has been quick to finalise the design of the new euro coins, to be minted in Bulgaria, and to be used as legal tender throughout the EU once Bulgaria joins the single currency setup.

What do they tell us about the prevalent political attitudes in 2024 and more generally about the national psyche?

To the uninitiated viewer, the Bulgarian euro coins will probably be unimpressive: some bearded men of the type one has seen time and again elsewhere in the Balkans. Those with a more protracted experience in the country might notice that the new designs are in actual fact not very new. They are remakes of what Bulgarians already have on their 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 stotinki, and on the one and two leva coins. These are depictions of the Madara Horseman (on the stotinki) and of two notable Bulgarian figures, St Ivan of Rila and Paisiy Hilendarski.

Who are these people?

First, the Madara Horseman. What is the largest rock relief in Europe was hewn at a height of 23 metres into the vertical rocks of the Madara plateau, a couple of kilometres from Pliska, the first Bulgarian capital in the 7th-9th centuries. Accompanied by a dog, an eagle on his shoulder, the horseman is on the hunt for a lion. Three inscriptions in Greek surround his eternal endeavour, capturing the words and deeds of early Bulgarian rulers.

Madara Horseman

Historians suggest that an early Bulgarian ruler commissioned the Madara Horseman as a symbol of his control over the newly conquered lands. This ruler was most probably Khan Tervel (700-721). He was the son of Asparukh, the man who led Bulgarians south of the Danube, in 681, and humiliated the Byzantines into accepting a treaty that recognised Bulgaria's existence as a political entity. Tervel was as formidable as his father. He actively and successfully meddled in Byzantium's never-ending game of thrones and when Constantinople was besieged by the Arabs and close to surrender, Tervel came to the rescue and put a stop to the invasion.

The earliest inscription beside the Madara Horseman retells with calm dignity how the Bulgarian khan helped a deposed Byzantine emperor to retake his throne. The other two inscriptions share this sentiment and were left by the two other emblematic early Bulgarian rulers, Krum (803-814) and Omurtag (814-831). The inscriptions were in Greek as they were written before Bulgarians had their own script.

As the Madara Horseman was carved in the rocks above a cave that local Thracians used as a shrine, the site became the physical manifestation of the blending of the different peoples who, in the early Middle Ages, evolved into what became modern Bulgarians. Only Slavs, the third constituent element of the Bulgarian people, are missing. In these early years few of them lived around Pliska and Madara, the stronghold of the Bulgars.

The Madara Horseman probably lost some of its symbolic power as Bulgarians adopted Christianity in the 860s, moved their capital to nearby Preslav, in 893, and redefined themselves as a Christian nation. Time passed, memories faded, and new settlers arrived. Among them were the Turks, who settled in the region after Bulgaria fell to the Ottomans in the late 14th century, and today they still make up a significant proportion of the population of this region.

When Bulgarian statehood was restored, in 1878, historical interest in the old capitals of Pliska and Preslav intensified. They were recognised as powerful symbols of the "eternal rebirth" of the nation, and a chance to restore the glory of the past. Once the early Bulgarians were identified as the true creators of the Madara Horseman, its symbolic importance grew.

The Madara Horseman preserved its grip on the popular imagination under Communism, whose historians for some time downplayed the role of early Bulgarians in the foundation of the Bulgarian state and focused their attention instead on the more politically correct Slavs (because of the "brotherhood" with the USSR). In 1979, the Madara Horseman was granted UNESCO World Heritage status.

After Communism collapsed, scientific and popular interest in the early Bulgarians gained a new momentum. This time, it was supposed to "prove" that the Bulgarians rather than the Slavs were the dominant force for the foundation of Bulgaria.

The relief remained in the spotlight. The hypothesis that it was made by the ancient Thracians reappeared too, as it was believed to "confirm" that the Bulgarian people were much older than previously thought.

The semi-mythical St Ivan of Rila obviously has nothing to do with the Madara Horseman, but rings a similar bell in the Bulgarian national consciousness. As with all others who have been sanctified by the Orthodox Church, it is difficult to cut a clear line between actual fact and religious belief, but here is what we know about the man.

Rila Monastery

Born in an ordinary Medieval village, Ivan led a simple life until his parents died, when he was 25 years old. Ivan then gave up all his property and became a monk, eventually ending up alone in the high and deserted Rila mountains. The fame of his piety grew and spread, and even King Petar took the trouble to travel all the way from Preslav, then the capital, in the northeast, to visit the hermit. Ivan of Rila would not agree to meet the king and only showed himself from a distance. Of all the lavish presents that Petar had brought, he accepted only the fruit and refused the gold.

Even in the 10th century living a simple, godly life was not easy. Before long the hermit found himself amid a growing community of followers, and was forced to seek solitude farther up the mountain. There he died, supposedly in 946, at the age of 70. Marking his abode today is a small chapel. The monastic community that sprang up in his initial place of habitation turned into Rila Monastery.

The hermit was canonised soon after his death, and in the following centuries his supposedly miraculous remains travelled around Bulgaria. In the 1180s they were stolen during a Hungarian raid and brought to what would later become Budapest. They were returned to their rightful home, with much pomp and ceremony, as late as 1469. They are now in the monastery's main church, exhibited for veneration in an elaborate wooden casket.

There are some details of the life of Ivan of Rila (or the legends about him) that are not that well-known. The hermit is said to have subsisted on a diet of herbs and potions with the aim of embalming himself while still alive. Some stories depict him as notoriously bad-tempered. He would curse whole villages for refusing to give him food or shelter, and caused the death of his young nephew. The boy had decided to become a hermit and joined Ivan. When his angry father reclaimed the son, Ivan of Rila asked God to save the young boy from the woes of earthly life. The nephew never reached home, as he was bitten by a snake and died on the way back.

To Bulgarians St Ivan of Rila symbolises not just the virtues of a simple and modest life. He stands for the national ability to withstand misfortune and to survive in the face of natural calamities and foreign enemies.

Paisiy Hilendarski was also a monk though one of a very different inclination. Born in Bansko, Paisiy served first in Chilandar then in Zografou, major monasteries in Mount Athos. There, he penned On the Bulgarian People, Kings and Saints, and All Bulgarian Deeds and Events, Gathered and Composed by Hieromonk Paisiy, Who Lived in the Holy Mount Athos and Who Arrived There From the Samokov Eparchy in 1745, and Who Collected This History in 1762 for the Benefit of the Bulgarian People, known to every Bulgarian school pupil as Slav-Bulgarian History. The book was supposed to gather on its pages the story of the rise and might of medieval Bulgaria. It introduced the reader to the nation's glorious but forgotten past.

Monument of Otets Paisiy in his native Bansko

From the standpoint of 2024 the Slav-Bulgarian History can hardly qualify as... a history. Most of the material is in fact designed to boost Bulgarian nationalist feelings and denigrate Bulgaria's neighbours, mostly the Greeks and the Serbs. Still, against the background of the time, it remains an important book in Bulgarian history as it was the first to speak of a Bulgarian "nation," not of just some Orthodox people in the eastern Balkans.

Generations of Bulgarians after Paisiy have held him in high esteem and suggested his work set off what would later become known as Bulgaria's Revival Period, a singular and highly idealised period in the 19th century Bulgarian lands, the backdrop of the struggles for national independence. After the 1878 liberation, streets, schools and libraries were named after the Mount Athos monk. In the 1920s and 1930s one of the Nazi-modelled nationalist organisations took Paisiy's name. After the arrival of the Communists in 1944, Otets Paisiy continued to be venerated, but his religious background was downplayed. Now he was just a historian and educator striving to raise the Bulgarian national consciousness.

Other EU nations that already have the euro in circulation have gone a different way. On the 1 euro coin Austria has... (you've guessed it!) Mozart. Pretty uncontroversial even for people who dislike classical music. Finland, Croatia, Greece and others have animals on their euros. Finland has swans. Croatia has a marten. And Greece has the owl, the symbol of wisdom, copied straight from a 5th century BC drachma coin.

Germany does not have Beethoven, but has opted for that centuries-old symbol of Germany sovereignty, the eagle. Interestingly, the German euro coins were designed by... a Bulgarian, Sneschana Russewa-Hoyer, the 71-year-old engraver and medallist, who has worked in collaboration with her husband, a sculptor, and has produced many top coin and stamp designs first for the GDR and then for unified Germany.

None dabble in religious symbolism or play on nationalist sentiments.

Instead of opting, through the yet-to-be-minted euro coins, to promote itself as a modern, forward-looking state Bulgaria has again focused on the distant Orthodox past that many modern Bulgarians perceive as one of the major foundation stones of the Bulgarian national identity. This is at loggerheads with most of modern Europe, where religion is clearly separated from state.

Some Bulgarians of more cynical inclinations point out other ironies as well. How can the Orthodox St Ivan of Rila, a hermit who never had any money, sit on... an euro coin? And is not the portrait of Paisiy, who was never pictured while he was still alive, just a stylised self-portrait of the modern Bulgarian painter who painted him?


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